Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Honorable Mention: The Best Outside of the Best of 2013

In leading up to my Ten Best Films list of the year, I wanted to first look back at all of the other films that I have enjoyed throughout the year, since we all know that there are a whole lot more than ten great movies within any given year. And sometimes, the specific years - the flimsy pedestals with which we choose to compartmentalize our favorites - can be a bit blurred. There were two films given Oscar-qualifying, one-weekend openings in Los Angeles in 2012, but were never actually seen by general audiences till 2013. The first was Promised Land, the Gus Van Sant directed, Matt Damon produced and written, anti-fracking propaganda piece that ended up being far less hand-wringing then anyone anticipated. Van Sant's film sucked the power of an unbelievable lead performance from Damon, who I think may be the most talented movie star working today. Promised Land didn't need to have as good of a screenplay as it did, and it proved that artists could still make protests without sacrificing the artistry. The other film was Ginger & Rosa, which didn't greet audiences until March. Ginger & Rosa is a brilliant representation of Cold War England, about a teenaged girl (played with astonishing clarity by Elle Fanning) who avoids the details of her parents' crumbling marriage and her father's subsequent affair with her best friend. She throws all her emotions into the anti-bomb movement. The film is by Sally Potter (Orlando) and contains autobiographical elements that give the film its powerful emotional edge.

Still in the early year, there was No, the Chilean submission for the 2012 Foreign Language Oscar which was shot on low-grade video tape and starred Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad agent chosen to head the campaign against the Pinochet government. It's visual gimmick aside, No represents the best of historical cinema: locating it's tale through a central character and led by a brilliant lead performance from Garcia Bernal. This was released side-by-side with the Stephen Soderberg's final theatrical release, Side Effects, a deliciously scribed, brilliantly acted noir in which Soderberg uses the movie star personas of Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Channing Tatum against its audience expectations. Side Effects seemed to be swept under the rug for the actual Soderberg finale, HBO's prestige Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra, but let there be no doubt: Side Effects was the best film Soderberg released this year.

In early April, we had the passing of Roger Ebert, arguably the very best film reviewer of his generation and a man unafraid to call out the silly behavior of writing about movies, while still giving nobility to his profession, which is usually filled with self-righteous cranks. And in the month of his death, we were given two very good films that seemed to embrace the very spirit of what Ebert loved about the movies. The first was Terrence Mallick's To The Wonder, a somewhat partner piece to his 2010 film, The Tree of Life, which was much less sprawling but just as meandering. It's sweet, tortured performance from Olga Kurylenko was much better than any of the acting in his previous film and its romantic nature made it simply a much more palatable film than Tree of Life. Then there was Mud, Jeff Nichols' Southern gothic that was probably the best narrative of the first of the year. It was a grumbling thriller starring a movie star (Matthew McConaughey) in a tattered role, but its heart was with the young actor Tye Sheridan who is the film's protagonist. The film possesses a connection with its children characters that is on par with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and it contains a romanticism for a child's wisdom over the melodrama of adulthood.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (***1/2)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


Many important filmmakers are copied, homaged, even straight ripped off. These influences usually guide filmmakers to find their own voices as they weed through the fields of their heroes, and in a lot of cases those filmmakers go on to improve on those styles. Consider Martin Scorsese himself, who borrowed greatly from Fellini and Cassavettes to form his own singular and brilliant vision. He improved upon those visionaries. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese shows that in 2013 nobody can do Scorsese as well as the man himself. With all the posturing of American Hustle, beating around the bush of Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese puts that film to shame with Wolf, which dares to go there; show American excess as what it is: a giant party that never ends, an avalanche of drugs, sex and money money money. In his fifth collaboration with the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the director pushes his favorite movie star to the brink of sanity, to a place where becoming satiated is not an option. Sure, Wolf is a lot like Goodfellas but this is a Scorsese rip-off on Scorsese's terms, and that produces some of the most entertaining cinema you're going to find this holiday season.

Panetti Corrects Me on 'Frozen'

My frequent movie companion and girlfriend - who's seen close to two thirds of the movies that I've gone to see this year - had one major bone to pick with me: I did not like Frozen enough. After many a bristled debate over whether or not the latest Disney animated film is the best movie of 2013 (she thinks it is, I very much do not), I have given her her very own platform. Probably should be noted that Panetti is a graphic designer with a habit for animated movies. It was her childhood dream to animate for Disney. Keep this in mind as she delves into long passages about the inner workings of animation procedure. Without further ado, here is Taylor Panetti's case for Frozen as her favorite movie of the year.

TAP: Simply put, the greatest thing about Frozen is how much it deviates from the typical Disney Princess story. Actually, these deviations started in 2010 with the underrated Tangled and continued through with 2012's Brave (although technically a Pixar movie, but for the sake of argument, I'm lumping it in with Disney for obvious reasons). The studio began to explore new relationship dynamics, stepping away from Prince Charming and to some extent, even making fun of themselves and their Princess formula.

Frozen is the first sibling relationship to be explored so thoroughly by Disney. Yes, plenty of Disney movies have had siblings, but they have never been the focus. And they're sisters! Win for the feminists! Well, sort of... Neither Anna nor Elsa are incredibly dynamic characters on their own; Anna is the quirky, naive do-gooder younger sister while Elsa is the moody, conflicted older sister. However, combined I think they do cover the duality missing from almost all female characters in mainstream media - especially Disney. But their relationship is what defines the entire movie.

It's also important to point out that this is one of really only two Disney movies (Brave being the first) that has a story revolving around two female figures -neither of whom are wholly good or evil, but simply human- in which one female is essentially rescuing the other. But don't be mistaken, neither woman fits into the stereotypical 'damsel in distress' Disney is so fond of turning its princesses into and neither need a man to save them. In fact, all the male characters in this movie are in place to assist the sisterly bond.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

August: Osage County (****)

Directed by John Wells


Meryl Streep is a goddess amongst us mere humans; it's essentially been a known fact that she is our greatest living actress since the beginning of this century, possibly beforehand. I've been known to get fatigue amongst the wave of Streep Worship, convinced that most of the power behind the Streep myth is that she snatches up all of the few great leading roles for women and hogs them all for herself - I still haven't even seen The Iron Lady though I still haven't stopped rolling my eyes over the thought of  her winning her third Oscar for it. But August: Osage County represents the best of what Streep has to offer, a five-course meal of emotions both hilarious and tragic, headlining a phenomenal ensemble cast and playing an instrumental role in their performances. This is what makes Streep the legend that she is. It's not purely the acting (for my money, Julianne Moore and Laura Linney both have higher ceilings and more range), but the fact that her power, her persona and above all, her famed and strict professionalism keeps all of her co-stars in top form as well. She is the LeBron James or Magic Johnson of film acting. She always makes her teammates better.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (*1/2)

Directed by John Lee Hancock


When I learned of the overall premise of Saving Mr. Banks, I immediately began suffering PTSD of my horrid viewing of the 2004 film, Finding Neverland. In that film, we learn that author J.M. Barry (played with aching stiffness by Johnny Depp) was inspired to write his Peter Pan books by spending his time with a lovely but unlucky English family. It was an overwhelmingly sentimental film that played down several important issues in Barry's tale and focused on the power of family. In Saving Mr. Banks, we're introduced to P.L. Travers (played here by Emma Thompson), the Austrailian author of the Mary Poppins books. By the time of this film, she has already written her books, and the film's story is about her fight against those planning to adapt her books into a movie. Doesn't necessarily sound too exciting until you consider that it's Walt Disney himself who's trying to make the film. Going into Saving Mr. Banks by comparing it to Finding Neverland was setting the bar rather low, if I'm being honest. And some how Banks managed to be even worse.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (**)

Directed by Peter Jackson


I remember watching the Oscar broadcast in 2004, where great films like Mystic River and Lost in Translation were forced to bow down to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which won a record-tying eleven statues including Best Picture. It was an honorary moment, honoring the trilogy more than the single film itself. And it seemed like horrible over-compensation. But then, I've never cared for Jackson's obsessive work with the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. When I was in elementary school, I read The Hobbit for the first time, and while I enjoyed it, I was never much interested in further exploring Middle Earth. I had no idea that Lord of the Rings was a thing until the first film showed up in theaters in 2001. Yet, I've seen all of those Lord of the Rings movies (in the theater), and now I've watched his first two films based on The Hobbit. With a third film still waiting in the wings, I find the excitement has died down quite a bit for Jackson's epics, even if his dedicated fans will still show up at the theater. I still remain as unenthused as before.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Her (****)

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze


For all of the fantastical visual elements within the features, short films and music videos of Spike Jonze, his storytelling persona has always been dedicated to a very tender, particularly humane tale of life. They're usually just cynical enough to avoid schmaltzy sentimentality, but just look at the recent music video he made for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife" starring Greta Gerwig. Deep at the center of all his work are the minor exuberances that make you cherish being alive. His latest film, Her, is his first without the help of a big name screenwriter. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were famously written by the genius scribe Charlie Kaufman, while he co-wrote his script for Where The Wild Things Are with famed writer Dave Eggers. For Her, he is the sole writer at the helm, and what develops is not unlike some of Kaufman's best work: a sweet, funny tale wrapped in melancholy, a story that feels so personal that it resonates with universal appeal. It is, along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a snapshot of the millennial romantic crisis.

Monday, December 16, 2013

American Hustle (***1/2)

Directed by David O. Russell


David O. Russell's latest film opens with some text that reads: "Some of This Actually Happened". It's a funny little blurb to throw up on the screen which seems like a much more honest representation then seeing the hackneyed "Based on True Events" that usually shows up in front of these kinds of films (Like Saving Mr. Banks or Rush, to use 2013 examples). In reality, it's just as dishonest as those other tactics, if only for it's comedic attempt to pull back the curtains of how Hollywood attempts to portray portions of history. But this subversive joke at the film's open really works here, because the film itself is almost entirely about misinterpretation, presenting the facade of self-deprecation and humility, but what's really happening? American Hustle's thesis is hard to pin down because the straight story never stays very straight for too long, but it's probably Russell's first film since I Heart Huckabees to be possessed by that manic, crazed energy that was such a stamp of his early films. And that, along with the brilliant performance by its ensemble cast, make this worth watching.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen


For as brilliant and celebrated as the Coen Brothers are, I'm not sure you can go through their filmography and find a performance like Oscar Isaac has in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. They assisted the performances of Frances McDormand in Fargo, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, which are all better performances than Isaac's here, but those are all still orchestrated by that oh so familiar Coen Brothers scheme. Their films are so specifically controlled and manipulated that the performances - even the great ones - feel like pieces of filmmaking, instead of the work of professional performers. Isaac bursts through that veneer with a character that feels so much like a Coen creation, but with a completely different representation. In their first film since 2010's underwhelming True Grit, the Coens turn their eye toward the pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene of 1961 New York. Our focus is on a single performer, Llewyn Davis, who's cycle of failure and poor luck makes up the whole of their latest, polarizing film.

Frozen (***)

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee


The last decade and a half of film animation has been so thoroughly dominated by Pixar studios that at times it has seemed like no one else has even put up a fight, least of all it's parent company, Disney, which has its own legendary studio Walt Disney Animation. I feel like that has shifted ever so slightly in the last few years. Sony Pictures Animation has the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise, which is very slight, but unbelievably adorable. Dreamworks has had a rough patch lately, but they're still the studio responsible for 2010's terrific How to Train Your Dragon and at least the first Shrek film was terrific. And last year, Walt Disney Animation produced Wreck-It Ralph, which may have possibly been the best animated film of the year (even though it lost the Animated Feature Oscar to Brave which was produced by - you guessed it - Pixar). None of those movies are as splendid as Frozen, though, which is Disney's best non-Pixar film since 1998's Mulan. And it's that good because Disney got back to its bread and butter.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Philomena (***)

Directed by Stephen Frears


Stephen Frears is one of the most consistent filmmakers working today, which makes it all the more unsettling that he's spent his last few movies orchestrating English prestige Oscar bait. When you think that he was the man behind such excitingly vibrant films like My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and High Fidelity, it feels a bit like betrayal to see that he's got both the Freddie Mercury AND the Lance Armstrong biography coming down the pike. All that said, is there anyone playing the Oscar bait game who makes films as good as Frears? Is there anyone who really believes that Helen Mirren didn't deserve her steamroll toward an Oscar for Frears' The Queen? And while his 2009 collaboration with Michelle Pfeiffer, Cheri, was mostly dismissed as prestige pandering, it is actually an exceptionally made adaptation of Colette's novel of the same name. Frears is one of the few directors I trust in the Oscar bait director's chair, because he does actually care about making a good movie, even if he doesn't exactly have to. If he'd made The Iron Lady two years ago, I might have actually gone to see it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Nebraska (****)

Directed by Alexander Payne


Bruce Dern is a seventy-three year old actor who's spent most of those years working consistently as a Hollywood character actor. He was at the peak of his powers in the 1970's, with bombastic performances in films like Coming Home (for which he was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar) and Black Sunday. His version of Tom Buchanan is probably the only quality part of the otherwise droll 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. But he's spent most of his career as a relative unknown, especially these days, where his Oscar nomination is now forty-five years old. (Having just finished the documentary on actor John Cazale, I Knew It Was You, I realized the great parallels between Cazale and Dern - both terrific character actors. I wondered, had Cazale lived past 42 years, if he would've ever gotten his Nebraska). Alexander Payne's newest film, Nebraska, is the first time that Dern has been chosen to lead a picture. Staying true to his consistent professionalism, Dern delivers a perfect performance so evasive yet so incredibly intimate. The film also continues the consistent greatness of Payne, amongst America's best filmmakers, who crafts one of his best, most emotionally complex films to date.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Book Thief (**)

Directed by Brian Percival


The Book Thief really means well, and the overall nice-ness of the storytelling here makes it hard to really dislike. In it's purest form, this is really a story built for children, based on Markus Zusak's young adult novel, yet Brian Percival's film wants the prestige of a serious adult drama. It feels like its overextending its reach, even if it does have the gravity of a Holocaust story on its side. The Holocaust has inspired some of the very best films that I've ever seen (Schindler's List, Seven Beauties), but it's also inspired some disasters (The Reader, Life is Beautiful), with filmmakers attempting to tap one of history's greatest tragedies for sentimentality or life-affirming propaganda. It probably has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the fact that there have just been so many damn movies made about it. The Book Thief is far from being either the best or the worst Holocaust movie, finding itself somewhere in the middle, with a collection of performances that manage to just raise it above dull.

Dallas Buyers Club (**1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee


It's hard not to feel like Matthew McConaughey's recent career resurgence is reaching its crescendo here with Dallas Buyers Club. It's a striking performance, so captivating and virile. He famously lost 35 pounds, and its a testament to the performance that it doesn't feel too much like stunt acting. It's a juicy role, one that's screams out for awards attention, but McConaughey plays it without shame, and even at times without decency. That is to say, by avoiding the obvious way to play the role, he made it seem like that was the obvious way all along. This is what happens when you get the right movie star to play the right part - this was also proven with Tom Hanks in Captain Philips and Robert Redford in All is Lost. But what about the movie itself? Dallas Buyers Club's premise is problematic on its own, but what's to say of its execution, which nearly forces us to feel compassion for a homophobic bigot and an AIDS profiteer? Shouldn't that matter at all? It's a film that requires a lot of unpacking, even if it does supply a highly watchable two hours.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color (**)

La vie d'Adele
Written, Produced and Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche


If certain straight people think that homosexuality is too mainstream, they should go and watch Blue is the Warmest Color. It's bullish, in-your-face and doesn't hide it's romantic entanglements behind narrative structure. It won the prestigious Palme D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, and was the first time in the festival's history that the award was given to two of the film's lead actresses as well as the director. It's part sexual awakening, part lesbian docudrama. It's part love story arc, part Mike Leigh-level improv experiment. It's depiction of the sex life between two women was explicit enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating, yet it probably spends more time peaking into classrooms, watching students of various ages read from pages of literature. Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the most important movies that you can see in a theater this year, but it is also probably one of the dullest, unequivocally muted by it's own need to capture reality, instead capturing mundanity.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor (*)

Directed by Ridley Scott


The plot of The Counselor is complicated in a way that leaves you with very little enthusiasm to actually figure it out. There's nothing engrossing about this film and these characters. It's story is not just bleak, it's apocalyptic - it's drama is second-rate Shakespearean, it's attempts at flourish feeling more like camp. It's a film made by a director and a screenwriter that feel that any message is incredibly important as long as they're the ones delivering it. Their clout allows them to pack the film with stars across the board; a hoard of Oscar winners, nominees, future Oscar nominees and Cameron Diaz. The trust these actors place in these veteran artists seems implicit, which is a shame. The result of their efforts is a two-hour megaphone rant scripted by two men on the wrong side of seventy-five screaming about how cruel, empty and inherently evil the world is. No country for old men, indeed. Let's hope it stays that way.

Monday, October 21, 2013

All Is Lost (****)

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor


The theme of survival has been explicit throughout the heavy-hitting October releases. Gravity put a frail biomedical scientist against grave odds to survive being lost in space. Captain Phillips showed one man's attempt to maneuver his way out of a dangerous kidnapping scenario. And just this weekend 12 Years a Slave showed how a free man turned slave has to find ways to stay alive just long enough so that his free status will eventually be recognized. The survival theme in 12 Years is most prevalent, with several characters commenting on it throughout, but in all three of those films the hero had a very definable destination they meant to reach. They knew the process and they knew the route to the position they coveted. All is Lost follows a man without any idea of how he will escape. He's a resourceful man, fully prepared for the elements that he faces, but it's nothing in the face of mortality. His actions seem to only prolong the inevitable, each action adding only mere seconds till the grips of death reach, which makes All is Lost the most gripping portrayal of survival yet.

12 Years a Slave (***1/2)

Directed by Steve McQueen


In a post Django Unchained movie climate, a film like 12 Years a Slave might get swallowed. Both films put almost Mel Gibson-like focus on the brutality of American slavery, soaking the audience in the horrors and the blood of the darkest part of American history. Django did it with flair, a pop picture using Western homage to contrast the grotesque evil shown on the screen - that movie only felt about ten percent sincere. 12 Years a Slave is a full hundred. It sees nothing catchy or funny about the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York during antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the dastardly South. It's bones are rooted in complete seriousness. 12 Years is unflinching, rough to the touch and stark in its emotional portrayal of such a harrowing story. With incredible performances from his main cast members, Steve McQueen crafts a story that manages to side-swipe the sentimentality of previous slave tales like Roots while still managing to capture the helpless horror of its setting.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (**1/2)

Directed by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn

When you consider that we live in a movie culture where Hollywood has so desperately run out of ideas that they're making movies out of 500-word children's books, you have to appreciate the effort put forth to make a farce as charming as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It's maniacal commitment to Looney Tunes-style insanity felt refreshing compared to both the sentimentality of Pixar and the cynical, trying-to-hard-to-be-cool-ness of Dreamworks animation. It's zaniness had little in common with the original book's modest contrast of a normal everyday town being blessed with giant food falling from the sky, but it had a unique voice. It's easily the best thing that Sony Pictures Animation produced, so I guess it would be a no-brainer that it would produce a sequel. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 has the same formula of most children's movie sequels - take a winning recipe and add some extra, sugary toppings - but doesn't leave you feeling as bloated as it could have.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips (***)

Directed by Paul Greengrass


It's hard to think of a movie star like Tom Hanks - someone who has been a movie star for such a sustained, lucrative period of time - and think that he will be able to show us something new. But that's exactly what happens in Captain Phillips. It's hard to remember the last time Hanks was able to tear into a role the way he does here. Do we have to go all the way back to 2001's Cast Away? If Phillips is set to spark a new chapter in this historically popular star's career, it does so with a performance so ingrained into the Hanks reputation that it feels like something he's done a million times. But it isn't. This is a film less interested in the rights and wrongs of a dangerous situation than we might think, but its placement of Hanks, right in the middle, gives the movie an undeniable moral center. Does Hanks abuse that responsibility? No, he just uses it to give one of the best performances of his career.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Don Jon (**)

Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Thanks to the internet, the development of wifi technology and the boom of video ripping/bootleg movies, pornography is more available to the public than it ever has been before. There is a lot consumption going on right now, with Spotify allowing its users to take in as much pop music as is possible and YouTube letting people hop from viral video to viral video until your entire day is gone, and your mind is racing with cats playing pianos or crotch punches. Porno is also a major player in this cultural development, though obviously people are a lot more mum about it. Don Jon wants to be the first movie to fully embrace this part of Modern American sociology, and its certainly different that a wide release discusses porn addiction, but this film's bite is rather soft and takes too much time to really make its point, which doesn't really have anything to do with pornography at all.

Gravity (***1/2)

Produced and Directed by Alfonso Cuaron


Should be said before we begin here, I only saw this movie in plain ol' 2D, and while I've been told that I only captured a fraction of the film's brilliant visual experience, I still found the film's effects to be staggering. Thought it best to get that off my chest before we're in too deep.

Gravity opens with text meant to reinforce how terrifying outer space is. It seemed like the kind of thing added self-consciously at the last minute because the last thing this movie needs is a list of factoids explaining why the events that are about to unfold are truly, down-to-the-marrow scary. And this is a movie that truly embraces its setting, acknowledging both its unmatched beauty and the unending threat of horrible, suffocating death. With the exception of that opening text, Alfonso Cuaron's latest movie is incredibly confident in its translation of that constant contradiction. It never fools itself that the silent grace of space is anything other than a siren's song coaxing many into an imminent death trap. This delicate balance produces what will probably be the most stress-inducing movie theater experience of the year and a visual wonder, suckering you into the majestic vastness of space all the while reminding you how frightening it can be.

Enough Said (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener


Nicole Holofcener goes out of her way to make movies about women, but she has no interest at looking at them through the Nancy Meyers, feminist-lite lens. She just has stories in her head, most of them dealing with women over thirty, and has a way of telling these stories that is both flabbergasting in its effortless portrayal of things that are simply not shown too often in Hollywood movies and terrific in its modesty, not showering itself with praise but instead shaming the audience for even considering any of these tales as "innovative". Her 2001 film, Lovely and Amazing, is one of the best of that decade that contained a spectacular performance from Emily Mortimer that still goes horrifically unseen. Her latest film pegs Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as its muse, and isn't afraid to explore the comedic landscapes that she leads the movie into, and Louis-Dreyfuss is equally unafraid to delve into the film's deeper themes of trying to start from scratch with love when it has burned you down to the foundation.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Blue Caprice (***1/2)

Produced and Directed by Alexandre Moors


Blue Caprice is a movie that documents real, true mental instability. Much like the movies Zodiac and In Cold Blood, it covers a true story of a killer who's motive is not money or jealousy the way we like to think of violent crime. Instead, these killers are motivated by blood lust, seemingly aroused by the chaos created by killing random, innocent people. It may be the single most chilling aspect of the world we live in, that people like this actually do exist, and Blue Caprice is one of the finest films to ever showcase this kind of person. It's inspired by Washington D.C. sniper killings in 2002, and reveals a compelling story behind the seemingly mindless murders that terrified the Northeast for weeks. Directed by Alexandre Moors, his first feature, Blue Caprice holds two of the most perfectly orchestrated performances of 2013 and one of the most blood-curdling tales of murder you can see in a movie theater right now.

Rush (***)

Directed by Ron Howard


The world of Formula 1 racing is one of constant danger with every race presenting a twenty-percent chance of a racer dying - as we're told by one of the characters early in this film. It's one of those sports (boxing being another) that makes you scratch your head at the kind of person who'd be willing to take part in such an activity. And that's why it's such a juicy setting for a movie, presenting a varied carousel of complex characters, each with their own version of a death wish. Ron Howard's latest film, Rush, takes a peak at two of the most skilled drivers in Formula 1's history, and two of the sport's most calculated and brave. The film is propped up by its two superb lead performances, with each actor, in their own way, displaying a meticulous obsession with winning - one man willing do anything it takes to win, and the other knowing exactly what it takes and putting his formulas to use.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Prisoners (**1/2)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


The themes of Prisoners have been done countless times before, but that doesn't mean that an interesting film cannot be made from them. It seems in American cinemas there is nothing more terrifying then the abduction of innocent, American children (Prisoners avoids a rather hefty land mine by making the two abducted children both white and black). It's the ploy usually made by most horror films: the biggest threat you can make is the threat to the American middle-class family. But Prisoners isn't a horror film in its most formulaic sense, though it does use the same tactics to play upon audience emotions and expectations. No, instead Prisoners is played as a straight-forward, uber-serious drama, and while the film is filled with true suspense and a clever eye for the kinds of red herrings that make a movie mystery intriguing instead of obvious, its hard not to feel like Prisoners chose the least interesting way to tell this story, seeming to put more faith in its performances than its screenplay. I'm not sure the gamble pays off.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In A World... (***)

Written and Directed by Lake Bell


Feels like Lake Bell has been around for a very long time. She's been given a million chances to catch fire with movie audiences. It just hasn't happened. It's a lot similar to what keeps happening with Will Arnett in his various television projects, Bell is so charming and talented that Hollywood suits just figured that if they put her in enough projects, eventually the audiences will catch on. But the problem is that these same Hollywood suits put her in subpar films including the flat unfunny, Jason Biggs/Eva Longoria rom-com Over Her Dead Body and the over-serious family morality tale Pride and Glory. Even if these movies actually were good, none of them were ones that could give Lake Bell the opportunity to shine as brightly as In A World... does. All Bell had to do to get that opportunity was write and direct the film herself.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Salinger (**)

Directed by Shane Salerno


Most of what makes J.D. Salinger one of the most celebrated writers of the Twentieth Century is his uncanny ability to translate the mental trauma of his own life and reflect it into his characters in such a way that it became so identifiable to the reader. Most teenagers who get around to reading The Catcher in the Rye feel in a lot of ways like they're reading about themselves. There's an intense, brewing anxiety, a fear of growing up and straight terror of the responsibilities of adulthood rippling throughout its pages. Yes, that is what makes Salinger so beloved... for the most part. But there is also the mystery of Salinger, a famed Howard Hughes-like recluse who would lock himself into a small bunker outside of his secluded home in Cornish, New Hampshire for weeks at a time, possibly writing but definitely not communicating with the outside world. Salinger, the new documentary from Shane Salerno, seeks to solve some of that mystery, with mixed results.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Grandmaster (**)

Directed by Wong Kar Wai


When someone as good as Wong Kar Wai doesn't make a movie for six years, his latest movie is going to be an event, which The Grandmaster is. Six years is a good enough amount of time for audiences to forget that his previous film, 2007's My Blueberry Nights, wasn't very watchable cinematically or thematically. It's also long enough to make you want to like a movie more than you'd want to. Wong has always been meditative, stylishly long-winded, but The Grandmaster just felt flat-out long to me at times. It's story too often seems influenced by tired Western biopics, while still trying to grasp onto Eastern history. But in his first action film since Ashes of Time, this is definitely Wong's best martial arts film, helped greatly by master stunt coordinator Yuen Woo-ping (Drunken Master and, in America, the Kill Bill films). The result is a beautifully crafted film with a wobbly storyline, the scales falling widely on each end with colossal thuds as one trumps the other.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Drinking Buddies (***)

Written and Directed by Joe Swanberg


Alas, the days of Mumblecore seem numbered. So long ago seem the days of The Puffy Chair and Funny Ha Ha, when wannabe actors like Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski were taking matters into their own hands, writing and directing their own scripts and producing charming films on the ultra cheap (and made to look ultra cheap as well). These days, the Duplass brothers are making movies with Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, and Greta Gerwig - the reigning Mumblecore actress queen - is now headlining the widely released Frances Ha. Joe Swanberg is perhaps the most prolific of the Mumblecore movement, usually making about 2-3 features a year since 2008's Hannah Takes The Stairs (staring Gerwig). Swanberg's latest film, Drinking Buddies, is his first with a major movie star - Olivia Wilde - and the first to have a cast of predominantly name actors, following the trend set by his other brothers in this, the most bedhead-y form of cinema.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Short Term 12 (****)

Written and Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton


There's something so simple about how beautiful Short Term 12 is. It doesn't beg for your approval or squeeze pity out of you with its frank subject matter. It expresses itself effortlessly with a drum-tight screenplay and a wonderfully eclectic collection of performances. Set in an unfamiliar setting unknown to American cinema, its story feels wholly original, but its voice confident and vision totally clear, able to find the sweetness within the troubled lives it displays. It's a textbook independent film, but it isn't filled with the same pompous intellectual superiority that so many low-budget, character driven movies can have. It's equal parts sad and funny, occasionally at the same time. Lead by an impeccable stand-out performance from Brie Larson, Short Term 12 stands alongside The Act of Killing as not only my favorite movies of the summer but also of the entire year.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (***1/2)

Written and Directed by David Lowery


The evolution of the American Western in cinema is a fascinating one. Once the jewel of all Hollywood genres, it was marked by plots outlining black & white moralities. In the 1960's, the movies became more cynical, the thrill of cowboy action was replaced by science fiction, and the Western has been a niche genre ever since. When a Western strikes with audiences these days (does anyone remember the last time that happened?) it's usually for gimmicky reasons. But in 2007, three films came out - the Coens' No Country For Old Men, Andrew Dominick's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood - that changed the spectrum of the Western. The Wild West was no longer seen as a thrill ride where white and black hats faced off, but instead showcased a nightmarish, barren landscape filled with greed and danger. David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a continuation of that tradition.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler (**1/2)

Directed by Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels is a filmmaker of high ideals and low taste, and he enjoys making the two things clash violently in his films. What usually follows are sloppy stories, interesting casting decisions, and more times than not, a movie that is more fun to talk about then to watch. Precious was his big crossover hit, a harrowing story of inner-city poverty, that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. His follow-up, The Paperboy seemed to take any drop of sincerity that Precious had and totally disregard it. Paperboy was a movie about dirty, sweaty people with dark souls and even darker secrets. It seemed preoccupied with being a showcase for these despicable characters, had particularly carnal performances from its cast - which included Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, and John Cusack - and seemed completely cynical. But now, with The Butler, Daniels tries his hand at the esteemed Civil Rights drama, perhaps the most sincere of all cinema's sub-genres. It's a combination that is quite interesting indeed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Elysium (**)

Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp


There is a sincerity within Elysium that's hard to fault. It really wants to be about something - socioeconomic classes, South African apartheid, brutal federal government - but has a bit of a lazy way of being about it. It wants to be hard-hitting and sharp, filling the audience with rage at all of the injustice and how goddamn unfair everything is. But the template with which Elysium tries to make us feel all that injustice is hackneyed and uninteresting, a standard Hollywood action movie with all of its pieces moving in highly predictable ways. It wants to make you feel uncomfortable about the way of life presented, but makes damn sure that you don't feel uncomfortable with your viewing experience, with all of the good guys and bad guys ending up exactly where you want them to be. It wants it both ways, to be edgy and safe. This is material that could have really been challenging, but it settles for being something that wants to make everyone smile.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Prince Avalanche (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by David Gordon Green


There was once a time, before Pineapple Express and The Sitter and Your Highness, that David Gordon Green was one of the most interesting independent filmmakers in America. From George Washington to All The Real Girls, he was the master of the contemporary, ethereal Southern Gothic which has now inspired films by Lee Daniels and Jeff Nichols. But then he cashed in with Pineapple Express, and rightfully so. That was a successful stoner comedy, with great comedic performances from James Franco and Danny McBride (McBride and Green have a long relationship making projects together, and it's safe to say that McBride has been the most responsible for any monetary success Green has ever had), and I thought at the time that Green, ever the visual maestro, deserved a nice paying gig. But that was 2008 and it seems like it's been a long time since the formerly prolific filmmaker had made anything challenging.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Spectacular Now (**)

Directed by James Ponsoldt


Before my screening for The Spectacular Now, one of the film's screenwriters, Michael H. Weber, gave a brief introduction in which he spoke of the film as something that he and his co-writer, Scott Neustadter, saw as a blatant reaction to what was happening with high school movies. They wanted to deviate away from the vampires and witches that have plagued the teenaged romances of today's cinemas. Weber and Neustadter also wrote (500) Days of Summer, one of the best romantic comedies in several decades, but where Summer made expert use of several visual gimmicks - and a star-turning performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt - The Spectacular Now tries to run almost exclusively on sincerity, a tried-and-true tale of the ne'er-do-well finding his way. Gone are the bells and whistles, and hello are the melodramatic soliloquies.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue Jasmine (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Coming up with a story for a movie every year for nearly forty-five years is enough to tax even the most gifted idea man, so it's no wonder Woody Allen has borrowed some from time to time. If anything, he's proven himself to be quite gifted at adaptation. Stardust Memories was a pleasantly sardonic recreation of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Match Point was a pointedly severe vision of George Stevens' brilliant 1951 melodrama A Place in the Sun. That he's able to borrow so heavily without ever betraying his trademark style - or without crediting anyone else on his screenplay - is another testament to just how brilliant a screenwriter and filmmaker Woody is. Blue Jasmine has pretty heavy illusions to the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire in both theme and structure, but Woody is able to take the baroque Williams and translate it in that lovably simplistic Woody way. The result is his best film since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Act of Killing (****)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer


Every once in a while, it's nice to get a reminder how lucky we are to be part of Western democracies, where we're governed by institutions that allow for freedom of speech and the freedom to choose our beliefs and political affiliations. As The Act of Killing shows, there are many places that are not nearly as lucky. The film takes a sharp look at Indonesia and its stringent history for exterminating "communists". In the 1960's, Indonesia's path toward overcoming dictatorship was paved with vicious mass killings acted out by hired "gangsters". Those suspected of being communists were taken in, interrogated and almost always killed - killed in viciously creative ways, with all of the gangsters relishing the chance to act out scenes they saw in Hollywood movies. But specific people are targeted, ethnic Chinese living in the country are extorted, forced to pay officers or else they will be taken and killed by the gangsters as well.

Only God Forgives (*)

Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to 2011's Drive is stuffed with more violence, more neon, more flying limbs and more ruckus. Every year at the Cannes Film Festival, there's a big name film that's served up on a platter and sacrificed ruthlessly by some of the harshest, most severe movie snobs in the world. The premiere of Only God Forgives at the prestigious festival was met with boos, a bunch of walkouts, and a smattering of reviews meant to make Refn go hiding in a cave. It's a ritual that seems gratuitous, and the strongest venom is almost always saved for big name filmmakers (remember how they tore apart Fernando Merielles for Blindness?), but even with all that, the films that they pick on are almost always as bad as they're claimed to be. Only God Forgives may be one of the most correctly heckled films in the history of the festival.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Hunt (****)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg


I'm not sure any group of people are better at making uncomfortable films than the Danish. Led by Lars von Trier, their films generally explore topics that most people would rather just believe don't exist. In the 1990's, Thomas Vinterberg and von Trier worked together to create the Dogme Manifesto, a cinematic declaration to make purely unfiltered movies without all of the frills that draw the film business away from reality. The first and best film from this movement was The Celebration, written and directed by Vinterberg. The Dogme group didn't last long, and its fair to wonder if it was more gimmick then substance, but these Danish filmmakers continued to tell these stories, albeit with greater means, making audiences squirm as they explore darker and darker material. The Hunt is a continuation of that tradition, and it's probably Vinterberg's best film since Celebration.

Fruitvale Station (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Ryan Coogler

Fruitvale Station is the kind of movie made if you want to be outraged in a post-George Zimmerman world. With the controversial "not guilty" verdict coming down just a day after Fruitvale's premiere, the cynic inside of me felt like The Weinstein Company may have been the only liberal-agenda'd organization happy with the controversial jury decision (obviously, I'm being facetious). There's no way the filmmakers or the Weinsteins could have known that history would be so fated and play such a sorrowful note of timing, but this is the world that we live in and this is the vacuum in which Fruitvale will likely be viewed. It's not totally fair, but it's something that is so apparent in any theater screening this film that it almost has to be a talking point as you head out of the theater. If this were a piece of fiction, it would have felt eerily prescient. But its base in fact only leaves us with a rather bleak reality filled with a pattern of racially-charged violence.

I guess I should warn now that this review contains what may be seen as major spoilers. It's hard to discuss the film otherwise. It was a big news story in 2008, so I assume most people already know the story (I was actually totally ignorant of it and found out - you guessed it - by reading a review), but if you don't know the details and don't want to know, I'd turn away now. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (**)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro


Pacific Rim is about as good as I'd figured it would be (not very) and as dumb as I'd hoped it would be (epically). It's completely aware of what it has to do as a movie, totally knowledgable of the films of yonder that paved the way, and executes its plan while making its ancestors proud. It's a physical light show, devoid of meaning but overflowing in testosterone. It is also completely empty, armed with characters slightly less flimsy than cardboard and a screenplay that actually makes you think: "Yeah, that was alright but they way they did it in Independence Day was better". It's a movie for America, and its also a movie for the world, shamelessly pumped with global iconography hoping to snag as many international moviegoers as possible, but enough arrogance to realize that it is absolutely a Hollywood movie.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Way, Way Back (***)

Written and Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash


I think we've all been part of a terrible vacation - they always seem to happen at some beach house, the heat adding to the discomfort - surrounded by people you don't want to be around, pretending to have fun. Vacations are supposed to be times of absolute relaxation and endless exuberance, so when it ceases to be enjoyable, it's twice the burden. This is the plight of Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old loner with the usual social awkwardness particular to young teenage boys. His summer from Hell is on a beach in the Hamptons, where he's placed in an unbelievably charming coming-of-age story, torn between two men who are two completely different types of childish.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This is the End (***)

Written and Directed by Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen


This is the End seems like the epitome of comedic success. You make enough hit movie comedies and you too can be given $32 million to make a movie with all of your friends, not even give them character names - don't even write much of a script, really, just improvise! - and ponder the destruction of the universe while going as far and over the top with dick and fart jokes as you possibly can. It all seems very..... ponderous. But much to my surprise, the film is actually much more of a structured story then its production process would allow you to believe, and while this group of actors would seem to be giving themselves a reason to hang out with each other for thirty days, they all bring their comedic A-game cumulating in one of the funniest movies of the year.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Joss Whedon


If Much Ado About Nothing does anything for the image of pop filmmaker Joss Whedon, it surely extends the range of fanboy-ism that is so synonymous with his image. Filmmakers have re-done Shakespeare often, and will probably continue to do so for many centuries, but very few times do these adaptations stick. Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, but his words are so archaic that it sometimes seems impossible to perform them without drowning in staunch prestige. More often then not, films related to Shakespeare's themes (not straight recreations) develop better on the silver screen - see Ten Things I Hate About You's spin on Taming of the Shrew, or even West Side Story's modernization of Romeo and Juliet. Only Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Orson Welles' Othello ever felt like truly cinematic experiences while still committing to the Bard's words.* (see below) Whedon's Much Ado might be headed into that category.

The Bling Ring (**)

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola


This year's new Sofia Coppola movie dissects celebrity through an unfamiliar prism. In other words, this year's new Sofia Coppola movie is a lot like every other Sofia Coppola movie. I imagine that growing up with Francis Ford Coppola as your father can give you a pretty twisted vision of the Hollywood scene (after all, is there any other career like Papa Coppola? Universally considered a master but hasn't made a movie worth watching for three decades?), and it would definitely give you a unique perspective while growing up. There's always been an obsession with fame in all of her movies, and an equal obsession in pointing out its not-so-flattering qualities. The Bling Ring is another example of her telling this story, but its very far from her best attempt.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Before Midnight (****)

Directed by Richard Linklater


Richard Linklater's Before... series is easily one of my favorite film trilogies of all time. Born in 1995, from the dialogue exercise Before Sunrise, which took a young Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and put them in Vienna, then had them talk and talk and talk and talk and sometime in the middle of all of that fall in love. Nine years later, Hawke, Delpy and Linklater reunited for the 2004 film Before Sunset, an 80-minute masterpiece which showed their characters reuniting for the first time since their wonderful night in Vienna. Now, another nine years later, we have the latest film in the series, Before Midnight. All three films are so intrinsically different, yet so familiar in the most charming ways, marking time in both the fictional lives of this couple and also the actual lives of the viewers. Before Midnight is incredible because this story is so lived in for two decades by its audience; we are totally aware and familiar with even the most unflattering aspects of their relationship.

Stories We Tell (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Sarah Polley


Documentaries simply don't unveil themselves the way that Stories We Tell does. At once, a story about a family, it transforms itself into a story about a mother, than a daughter, two separate fathers before ultimately becoming a story about the unreliability of storytelling. It's a pretty fascinating, constantly shape-shifting piece of familial journalism, unafraid to blur the line between reality and fiction (even openly admitting that stating that trying to draw the line between the two is ludicrous). The film is directed by Sarah Polley, who is becoming a filmmaker so adept at storytelling (both narrative and cinematic) that I will likely go out of my way to see every one of her movies. Her 2007 film Away From Her was an emotional masterpiece staring Julie Christie as a woman fading from Alzheimer's; while 2011's Take This Waltz was an occasionally problematic, always singularly viewed character study of an unhappy woman (played by Michelle Williams), that dares to tell a story where a female protagonist leaves her amiable husband. Stories We Tell shows her taking a knack at nonfiction, and further proves that she's a master at numerous styles and juggling several stories, and a filmmaker on the rise.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frances Ha (***)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


The cinema of Noah Baumbach is usually bitter, awkward in the most cringe-worthy definitions of the word, and derivative references from the various poles of the cinematic/literary world. It's hard not to watch the first third of his latest film, Frances Ha, and not think of Woody Allen's Manhattan. Then its hard not to look at its last third and not think of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim. All of these films are shot in stylish black & white, filled with neurotic characters running around metropolitan cities, and imbued with an enthusiastic spirit that seems to betray the desperate actions of the characters. Frances Ha is not as angry as Baumbach's previous work, and a lot of that shift is owed to its star, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach (and they also date, so there's that) and does a great job of putting Baumbach's usual annoyed, passive-agressive tone away and filling the void with a character that is so delightful as she is delusional.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (**)

Directed by J.J. Abrams


The Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise has been one of the biggest success stories out of Hollywood these last few years. It felt like something unlike the Marvel Iron Man/Avengers reboots that worked mainly because A) they were lead by a wildly charming, magnanimous movie star (Robert Downey Jr.); and B) we were introduced to characters that had never really had successful film or television platforms beforehand. Star Trek, on the other hand, has had decades of dedicatedly-watched television episodes. So, for Abrams to tackle a film version - and in doing so, totally re-imagining the television show's mythology - and it work, is quite an accomplishment in itself. Which makes Abrams' follow-up to his 2009 version of Star Trek that much more disappointing.